This week, the Forward family mourns the loss of Harold Ostroff, our longtime general manager and a giant in the worlds of affordable housing and Yiddish culture. In its 109-year history, the Forward has benefited from the work of a few geniuses and many talented, smart, devoted people. Yet, even among them, Harold Ostroff was a godl — a giant.
To appreciate what Harold achieved at the Forward, one must first understand how desperate its situation had become by the time he took over as general manager in 1976. All the Yiddish newspapers (except the anarchist paper Di Fraye Arbeter Shtime) had closed between the 1950s and the early 1970s. The Forward’s many assets — real estate around the country, acquired in the heyday of the teens, ’20s and ’30s, had been sold off in the decades after 1945, when the paper started to bleed red ink. The AM and FM radio stations that the Forward still owned were not throwing off near enough income to cover the losses of the paper.
By the time Harold retired as general manager 22 years later, we had been saved. He had launched the Forward in English in 1990. In 1995 he launched the Russian-language Forward. When he retired in 1997, we were truly looking to the future.
I only met Harold after I became director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in 1980. A few years later we brought him onto the board of YIVO, where I started to acquire the respect and affection for him that has only deepened in the years since. Two years after I left YIVO in 1992, he asked me to become a member of the Forward Association, the organization that publishes this newspaper and the Yiddish Forward. In 1997, he asked me to succeed him as general manager.
He was incisive. As deputy managing editor E.J. Kessler recently noted, Harold always defined the terms of debate in any room. I recalled seeing that happen again and again — at Forward Association meetings, at meetings of the YIVO board, at the Workmen’s Circle, the Folksbiene, the Atran Foundation — and I’m sure that others who worked with him can say that based on meetings of the cooperatives he was involved with, from ORT or the Tamiment Institute or the UJA-Federation of New York. Whether it was his agenda or someone else’s, Harold would see to the core of a problem, and define the issue in a way that shaped the outcome. He was that clear sighted, that focused, that wise.
Harold took risks. He launched the English-language Forward even when the private investors who had promised to share the costs of launching a national circulation newspaper failed to keep their promise. He got the Forward Association to carry its costs alone for five years. He hired a gifted editor, Seth Lipsky, even though Lipsky’s political outlook was different from his own. Harold didn’t always attain his goals, and his losses took it out of him.
He cared for the people he worked with, and we cared for him. There was nothing patronizing about his concern; he simply sensed what mattered most to you, and spoke to that. We’ll remember that about him.
I don’t think that Harold believed in a neshome, a soul that lives on after the body dies. The concept is too intimately linked with the religious tradition of the Jewish people, too much a matter of belief. But as I stand here, I am sure that his neshome will continue to work through his family and his friends. On the day before he died, he summoned a few of us to his bedside. Though he was too weak to raise his head from his pillow, he spoke for eight or 10 minutes about his last dream: the Yiddish cultural center that the Forward Association and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring want to build. And then, despite the situation, Barney Zumoff and Peter Pepper and Robert Kestenbaum and I understood that he meant for us to have a meeting, right then and there. Every now and then he would ask a question or say a few words, but mostly he listened to us talk. We would each take turns asking whether he was too tired, or whether he wanted us to finish our meeting at another time. He said no, and insisted on continuing — until the doctor came up and the meeting was adjourned. Such was his strength. His purposes will not end with him.
Koved zayn likhtikn ondenk — honor to his shining memory.
Samuel Norich is the publisher of the Forward newspapers.